Program Would Improve Rikers Island Dysfunction

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration announced Tuesday that it will institute Justice Reboot, a plan that includes speeding up court appearances, clearing backlogged cases, and cutting the Rikers Island inmate population by 25 percent over the next 10 years. As of late March, more than 400 people had been locked up for more than two years without being convicted of a crime, according to city data obtained by The New York Times. Additionally, there are at least a half dozen people currently at Rikers who have been waiting on pending cases for more than six years.

This is the kind of government dysfunction that de Blasio hopes to clear up with the plan. The Democratic mayor hopes to put the 1,500 inmates who have been at Rikers for more than a year in court within 45 days, according to Gothamist. Most of them have been stuck in jail because of backlogged courts, poor legal representation, or deliberate tactics by the defense. The next hope is that half of those cases will be resolved in the next six months. According to the Times, de Blasio said in a statement:

Too many people have been detained at Rikers, sometimes for years, while they wait for trial. For the first time, our city will work with the courts, law enforcement, district attorneys and the defense bar to immediately tackle case delays head-on and significantly reduce the average daily population on Rikers Island.
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The Times article calls de Blasio's 25 percent goal a "modest reduction," since the daily population of Rikers has fallen 50 percent, from 20,000 to 10,000, in the last 20 years. Because that fall is due in part to declining crime rates and the use of rehabilitative programs for those with mental illnesses or low-level offenses, city officials believe de Blasio's reduction goal should be even higher to account for his administrative changes.

In an interview with the Times, Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, said a "culture of delay" is what has kept defendants trapped in jail. Not surprisingly, she said this culture has led to an erosion of confidence in the justice system.

Both the Times and The New Yorker have written investigative pieces about these delays, which can happen for a number of reasons: courts have too few judges or court officers; courts can lack interview rooms where lawyers could talk privately with their clients; delay can be a part of legal strategy, with hopes that witnesses will disappear or their memories will fade, forcing the defendant into a plea deal.

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But "delay" is too light a word to describe the horrifying miscarriage of justice that happens when backlogs trap a 16-year-old in jail for three years while he awaits trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, which was detailed in a story reported by The New Yorker. In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested in the Bronx after a man accused him of stealing his backpack a few weeks earlier. Browder, who always maintained his innocence, was assigned an attorney, but his case was postponed repeatedly, forcing him to miss his last two years of high school while trapped in jail.

He was finally released in May 2013 because the Bronx District Attorney's office dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. According to the article, Browder spent a lot of his time at Rikers in solitary confinement and became suicidal. Since his release, he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and has had a difficult time finding employment.


“Speedy disposition of justice is just an incredibly important moral obligation for a state,” Michael Jacobson, a former correction commissioner who now heads the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, told the Times in an interview. “These are pretrial; they’re not guilty of anything.”

To help prevent future defendants from being trapped in the system while awaiting trial, the city is also developing an online tracking tool to help authorities track cases and allow better coordination between prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges, according to the Times. Long term, special teams of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and court officials will be paid through city asset forfeiture funds to help resolve the root causes of delays and present recommendations at City Hall.

Another separate goal of the plan is to completely change the process that New Yorkers use to address court summonses — a document that summons you to court and fines you for a small offense like speeding — which make up more than 50 percent of all criminal court cases, according to Gothamist.

Gothamist cited a press release which said that, beginning this summer, New Yorkers who receive a court summons will be able to pay the fine online. This is a pretty necessary reform, since the most common court summonses are having an open container of alcohol, disorderly conduct, littering, and bicycling on a sidewalk. When a summons goes unaddressed, like 38 percent of them do, the court issues a warrant for the offender's arrest. According to Gothamist, de Blasio said in a statement:

Justice Reboot is about rethinking the way we approach criminal justice in NYC. Today’s changes are part of my long-term commitment to bring the criminal justice system into the 21st century, safely drive down the number of people behind bars, and make the system fairer.

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